On Thursday, I worked at the Local Court (Amtsgericht) Essen-Steele, a district in eastern Essen. First, I met with Mr. Ausetz, the Director of the Amtsgericht Essen-Steele at the Landgericht and then, drove to the Amtsgericht Essen-Steele. The Director (Direktor) of an Amtsgericht plays various roles at the court, including that of Chief Judge, with managerial duties. Unlike the Landgericht, the Amtsgericht is a court of first instance for civil matters, where the amount in controversy does not exceed 5,000 Euros, and for criminal matters, where the prison term is no more than five years.
On the way to the Amtsgericht, Mr. Ausetz and I discussed the many differences between the German legal system and the American legal system. As a civil law country, German law is codified into different codices, including the civil code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch), the criminal code (Strafgesetzbuch), and the code of civil procedure (Zivilprozessordnung). Every judge, clerk, and law student has a copy of all the codices (usually in one volume, such as here), which they can reference in writing opinions and answering legal questions. In addition to being a civil law system, the German legal system differs vastly from the American system. For example, Germany does not have a death penalty. Germany does impose life sentences; however, a life sentence is not necessary a life sentence. Once sentenced to life imprisonment, the inmate serves 15 years before being given a parole hearing. At the hearing, the board may decide to parole the inmate or continue the sentence. This process repeats every 15 years until the inmate is either paroled or serves his full life sentence.
At the Amtsgericht, Mr. Ausetz showed me around the court and introduced me to the Rechtspfleger. Another difference from the American system are the Rechtspfleger, who serve a wide variety of functions. Although not lawyers, the Rechtspfleger (akin to magistrates in the U.S.) exercise judicial authority and discretion in certain matters, such as family matters and matters pertaining to the land registries. After briefly meeting the Rechtspfleger, I accompanied a domestic relations judge to an alimony hearing. Although an official court meeting, the process itself was quite relaxed with all parties sitting at the judge’s desk. Much like in America, the meeting turned hostile as each party did not want to concede anything to the other. Thus, the judge stepped in, following a line of questions regarding property and living expenses, to issue a ruling.
Following the alimony hearing, I met again with Mr. Ausetz and we went for lunch with some of his colleagues. After lunch, I began to work on a couple of exams, which Chief Judge von Pappritz had given me to prepare for the following day for the Arbeitsgemeinschaft (AG).